6 Positive Results that Come from Attempting Life's Greatest Challenge
Every day is full of challenges, and most of us try our best to meet them. But what is life's greatest challenge? Climbing Everest? Winning Olympic gold? What if I told you it's something with power to change the world?
This proposal deserves more attention if you have any desire to be a better person. Whether or not you're religious, you may have heard about a difficult teaching of Jesus, one that even most Christians tend to ignore.
Jesus' challenge is to love your enemies. It's not that hard to love people who love you, right? It's not difficult to feel kindly toward people who are nice to you. You can have friendly feelings for a stranger who seems friendly, although "love your neighbor" isn't always easy either.
But love your enemy? The person who treats you badly? The one who does (and maybe keeps doing) something that makes your life more difficult, or at least less comfortable? How is that even possible?
And why is it even important, especially if you're not a Christian (and maybe not religious at all)?
I'm not here to preach to you, but every human being has this difficulty. Our lack of love for others is a universal problem. We may even let hatred lead to destructive actions toward those who have harmed us in some way, even though they're fellow human beings we must live with in a common society.
Jesus taught this, but so did Buddha, Gandhi, and many other wise people and religions.
Is there anyone in your life that you just can't stand? Maybe someone who constantly irritates you, who you feel resentment or jealousy toward? Maybe there are several people. And if so, are you proud of that? Does it make you happy?
I think most of us could name someone like that, and we can also admit that those feelings of anger and bitterness don't benefit our health or peace of mind. Those feelings can distract us from our purpose, especially if we spend time thinking about how we'd like to "get back" at that person, or at least get them to apologize and atone.
What does "love your enemy" even mean?
I don't think Jesus was just talking about political enemies, although I'm sure the people who heard him speak thought immediately about the Roman Empire which was oppressing them at that time.
But a little later in his teachings about the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12), Jesus says we should ask God to forgive our sins "as we forgive those who have sinned against us." That's obviously not just talking about terrorists – that means your sibling you had a big fight with and have barely spoken to for the past couple of years. It means the coworker who always criticizes you and sticks you with the worst jobs, or an ex-spouse who cheated on you. It could even be someone who hurt you emotionally or physically a long time ago.
This is starting to sound impossible. Do you think Jesus really meant it?
To love your enemy is to find it in your heart to set aside any wrongs and love them as a fellow human being. You don't have to love them like you love your parents or children or best friend. Just have kind feelings toward them... and if possible, express those through words, a good deed, or even just a smile.
Yeah, that doesn't sound easy. Picture the person you dislike most, and see if it's easy to find any love for them.
Imagine someone who murdered someone you love. That person would definitely qualify as an enemy. Could you love that person? Even if I told myself it was a choice, not an emotion, I know that would be the most difficult thing in my entire life.
I've probably lost some of you by this point. I realize this isn't something everyone wants to hear. So why am I writing about it? Why would I even want to try to love someone who's done something awful to me? What do I get out of that?
6 benefits of trying to love
1. I'd be happier.
If I live with anger and resentment, that's not only going to eat me up inside, it's going to surface in my behavior toward others. Even if the anger isn't directed toward them, others may feel the result of it. I'll be less patient and less tolerant, and that might harm the relationships I care about.
2. I'd set a better example.
My kids and grandkids learn from what I do. If they see me hold a grudge, that's what they'll do too. But if they see me at least trying to make peace, that's a powerful example.
3. I'd be a factor in changing someone's life.
My husband has been teaching for a long time, and through the years he's had a few very troubled students. Those kids, who perhaps need the most kindness and encouragement, are never liked by their classmates, and I'm sure they know it. They're human beings, and being universally disliked must cause either grief or greater hatred in them. That's why Jon always tries to find some positive trait in those kids and let them know he sees and appreciates it. Maybe that's the one thing that will give them some hope.
Objectively, we know that hurting someone (even if we believe they got what they deserved) is always a bad thing. Treating someone well is always a good thing, and might make a positive difference.
4. I might make a friend.
A girl named Kim and I were high school rivals – we always tried out for the same parts in school musicals. She got the lead in Mame; I got the lead in West Side Story (we had very different singing styles). We were polite when together, but said mean things about each other to our separate friends. Everyone knew we didn't like each other. But Kim was more mature than I, and figured out that we had a lot in common. She started reaching out to me, and by graduation we were friends. I always felt I had missed out by not getting to know Kim sooner.
Sometimes being enemies is counterproductive – it hinders your progress – while making a friend can be productive – you can help and support each other.
5. It's better for the world.
One relationship might not seem to matter to society as a whole, but the cumulative effect of our rivalries, jealousies, dislikes, and disagreements creates a more fractured, angry, and dangerous world. We can see the results of this everywhere. And the opposite is also true. If we could all overcome that hatred and learn to love our enemies, we could cure a lot of the world's ills.
6. It's a test.
I like to think of myself as a good person, but if I only love my family and friends, how is that praiseworthy? Jesus puts it this way: "If you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the pagans do that!" (Matthew 5:47)
The real test of goodness is turning hatred into love.
Coming Thursday, I'll share tips to help all of us attempt this difficult task.
My new book, Simply Happy* (book 5 in my Minimalist Basics series) will show you how to change the way you look at the world. And then you'll be free to pursue your joy. It's the perfect book to give to yourself or a loved one.
* This blog is reader-supported. If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.